(Keith C. Burris’s article appeared in the Journal Inquirer, 2/8.)

I have known, in my life, many men who thought of themselves as “great,” and were anything but. And I have known a precious few who were exceptionally skilled at what they did and also became magnificent human beings — my definition of greatness.

And none, interestingly, considered themselves special. If they considered themselves at all, which they tried not to do, they saw their own folly — the cracks in everything, but especially themselves.

The actor Hal Holbrook, who died Jan. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., at 95, and whose death was announced last week by his family, was such a man.

I was lucky enough to know him and call myself a friend during the last 20 years or so of his life.

Holbrook really had three careers, which intersected and sometimes overshadowed each other. One was his career as Mark Twain, which deserves its own accounting and tribute. He did his one-man show — “Mark Twain Tonight!” — from 1954 to 2017, never missing a year, though in some years did only a few shows. He performed it 2,344 times, still doing 20 shows a year into his 90s.

Holbrook’s Twain was the longest-running show in American theatrical history. But, far more important, it taught the country about one of its most important, and original, writers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hal Holbrook jump-started the popular and scholarly interest in Mark Twain, showing us that he was not primarily a humorist or an author of children’s books, but the font of American satire, and, along with Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Lincoln and others, founder of a distinctly American literary form and tone. It is hard to imagine Tom Wolfe without Twain. Or Ernest Hemingway.

Hal Holbrook gave us back Mark Twain — the real, unvarnished, bitter Twain.

Holbrook loved the man. His was an almost 70-year love affair, in which the two men seemed, in some lucky and strange way, to finally merge into one.

Holbrook took it as his mission to bring Twain to the heartland and the midsize cities of the USA — to let America hear one of its truest voices. He took the show to all 50 states, as well as to Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain when it still stood.

He was not a scholar, he insisted upon that, but he approached Twain as a scholar — digging into his writing anew each time he went on the road and expanding his store of performable material. The show was 90 minutes, but Holbrook had 16 hours of interchangeable material by the end. All of it was committed to memory, of course. All of it was original — only Twain’s own words were used. Nothing was updated for the times. No transitional scripting was added.

I saw the Twain show eight times, usually in the company of one or two of my children. It was never the same show twice.

Holbrook had a second career — in television and film. TV was in a sort of second golden age in the 1970s and Holbrook was a major star and staple of what was then called the TV movie. He chose projects that meant something — from the first TV film about environmental pollution, to the first one about a gay male couple, to one about the Pueblo incident. My favorite from this period was a short-lived series called “The Senator.” This was an extraordinarily well-acted and well-written show about an idealistic senator who was also trying to legislate and lead — sort of a cross between Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. The show took on topics like the Kent State shootings, the right to dissent, and the political clout of the mafia.

Hal told me that when it was canceled he learned an important lesson: Show business is a business. Commerce trumps art every time.

He continued to do significant things in television — from “The Sopranos” to “The West Wing” to “The Sons of Anarchy” — into his 10th decade. His last appearance on the small screen was as a doctor who could not save his dying wife, on “Grey’s Anatomy.” He said once that it took him decades to learn how to act on film. You just have to “be” before the camera, he said, not really act at all. That performance was a clinic in being.

And that’s exactly what he did in his later movie roles. The most notable of which was his Oscar-nominated performance as Ron Franz in “Into the Wild.”

But I wish more people could see “That Evening Sun,” in which 60-some years of acting and 80-some of living are brought fully to bear. He should have won acting’s highest honor for those two roles, if not for his body of work.

He did, of course, win the Emmy (for TV), several times as well as the Tony (for theater). After his great success with Twain in the 1960s (the cover of “Life” magazine and 30 million people tuning in to watch the show on CBS in 1967), he joined a repertory company to hone his theater chops and play as many kinds of parts as he could. And not to be trapped by his first love — Twain. He figured that would diminish them both.

Holbrook always went back to the theater, in addition to Twain. This was his third career. After the financing of a film he was to direct collapsed, in his later years, he resolved to always do at least one new play a year. And he did. Just as he played every conceivable character in film, from country doctor to murderous cop, he played in every kind of stage work — from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller to David Mamet to “Man of La Mancha.”

I met him for the first time when he came to Hartford, Conn., where I then lived, to do Twain for one night. A pre-show interview had been arranged and we were to talk 15 to 20 minutes. We talked 90 minutes. He knew everyone in Hollywood and had worked with many. But he wanted to discuss two big things that day — national politics and Shakespeare.

The second time we met, he was in town to do a regional stage production of “Our Town.” He’d already done the play, and the part of the stage manager, both on stage and on film. But he was unhappy with his past performances. On film he felt his character had been too far removed from the other characters and the pathos of the play itself. This was another chance to get it right. Besides, he loved the play.

We met over black coffees and he had the play with him. We actually went over text together. He was at pains to show me how unsentimental and stark the play was; how its greatness was in the playwright’s cold eye, and how the warm, fuzzy feelings mined in every high school production were wrong. It’s a totally misunderstood play, he said. His performance, at Hartford Stage Company, was at once simple, transparent and majestic, as I imagine his rendering of Willy Loman was, though I was not lucky enough to see that.

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